Kathy Nichols
The tattooed lady

A legacy

By - Mar 25th, 2010 04:00 am
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Author Amelia Klem Osterud

Last night, Milwaukee-based author Amelia Klem Osterud presented her November 2009 book Tattooed Lady:  A History at the Haggerty Museum on the Marquette Campus in Milwaukee. With more than 100 rare photos of these ladies along with a few men of the time period and sideshow troupes, this colorful book pays tribute to these gutsy women behind the ink.

Osterud’s History covers the era of tattooed women from 1882 to 1995. She says that when she began researching the phenomena of the tattooed lady, she found a considerable amount of information, but few images, and was inspired to write about it.  These ladies would display their bodies in circus side shows at a time when Victorian dress was the norm and it was taboo for a lady to show even her arm or ankle.  She wondered why on earth anyone would cover their body in tattoos and stand on a stage— much less in the late 1800’s?  The answer, she learned, was simple:  money.

“They were typically working-class women who did it to support their families and have the opportunity to travel,” says Osterud.  “Tattoos are commonplace now, but weren’t in 1852,” she continued.

Men with tattoos were much more widely accepted, but when these inked women showed up on the scene, tattooed circus men were relegated to the sideshow. It seems people were more interested in seeing a nearly nude lady covered with artwork than they were in seeing men with a few images drawn on their bodies.

Rather than just posing for the crowds, these ladies also took on roles as storytellers. These were often some variation of ‘captivity narratives’:  dramatized accounts of being captured, tortured and tattooed by savage natives. Portraying themselves as ‘victims’ and capitalizing on this attention, some of the women sold pamphlets along with their routines and interacted with their audiences.  “Their acts were simple, yet sensational,” says Osterud.

Despite their popularity, these women were still heavily stigmatized in their communities, and considered rebellious and promiscuous. This notion was helped along by an article that appeared in an 1896 issue of Popular Science titled “The Savage Origin of Tattooing.”  Written by Cesare Lombroso, an Italian physician and criminologist, this helped to popularize the notion that criminal behavior is biologically determined and claimed that tattoos were one sign of such proclivity.

Image from Tattooed Lady: A History

But these performers were just regular, working class ladies. Although written of (in other texts) in a negative light and often called harlots or prostitutes, a lot of them turned to this as a source of income. Many even made a decent, if not respectable, living this way. At that time in history, “the daughter of a maid or farmer didn’t have access to much that would earn her more than menial wages,” said Osterud.  “This allowed them to make money and travel,” she continued, some of them maintaining their careers into their 80’s”.

It is unfortunate to note that frequently these ladies were taken advantage of in that they received money for their performances, but not from the photographs that were taken, reproduced and sold.

Osterud’s presentation was given in conjunction with the exhibit Freak Parade, a collection of 32 mixed media paintings done by New York-based artist Thomas Woodruff.

But what do the paintings have to do with tattooed ladies?  “Tom’s show is about much deeper issues,” says Shumow. “He’s interested in the imagery.  Woodruff is himself completely tattooed.  On a very minimal level, they’re related.”

Freak Parade runs through April 18, 2010. For more information about Amelia Klem Osterud’s book Tattooed Lady: A History, click here.

Categories: Art, Books

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